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  • A few weeks ago, a work by British street artist Banksy

  • went up for auction at Sotheby's London.

  • Moments after the auctioneer banged his gavel

  • announcing its sale for over $1.3 million,

  • a beep sounded and the canvas began

  • to fall through the bottom of the frame

  • and emerge in shreds on the other side

  • just after Banksy posted a picture of it

  • with the caption going, going, gone

  • and then followed up with a video showing

  • how he installed a shredder in the frame in case

  • it ever went up for auction.

  • Sotheby's claimed they had no idea

  • that this was going to happen and had been Banksyed.

  • And the buyer was anonymous, which is common in auctions.

  • After a week when media conjecture had

  • run dry over who knew about it and would the buyer have

  • to pay for it, Sotheby's put out a press

  • release explaining that what actually happened

  • was that a new work by Banksy had been created

  • at the auction, one that's been authenticated by the artist

  • and given the new title "Love is in the Bin".

  • After that, Banksy released a director's cut explaining that

  • in rehearsals, the paintings shredded fully every time,

  • including some vertical video to firmly place the rehearsals

  • in the recent past, proving both that he's a master manipulator

  • and that his word cannot be trusted.

  • OK, but let's take a closer look at what this work actually is.

  • Banksy first painted the image of a child reaching out

  • toward a red, heart-shaped balloon in London in 2002,

  • this one with the inscription "There is always hope."

  • Other versions were made around the city,

  • but none of the original murals remain

  • because this, like most of Banksy's work,

  • was unsanctioned street art made without permission

  • for the public to enjoy and for property owners or city

  • government to paint over or protect as they see fit.

  • Individuals can and have tried to remove and resell

  • his public art, but for the most part

  • Banksy's work has been fleeting and free

  • and is actively planned to be that way by its creator.

  • The heart balloon appeared alone in 2013

  • with bandages in Brooklyn and also with kids standing

  • on a pile of guns at a Central Park art stall on sale for $60.

  • In 2014, he reworked the girl with balloon image in supported

  • the With Syria campaign, explaining,

  • "The red balloon carries the girl above and away

  • from the chaos below, beyond the burnt-out buildings

  • and bullet-potted walls."

  • Also in 2014, Justin Bieber had the image tattooed on his arm.

  • A version with a Union Jack balloon

  • surfaced in 2017 in a print Banksy

  • tried to give away to UK citizens in some constituencies

  • if they voted against the Conservative Party.

  • But since it's illegal to accept a gift in return for a vote,

  • the offer was rescinded.

  • And a few days later he posted this.

  • In a 2017 poll, "Girl with Balloon"

  • beat out both this painting by JMW Turner and this one

  • by David Hockney to claim the title

  • of the UK's favorite artwork.

  • This is all to say that by the time the work in question

  • arrived at auction it was a well-loved and widely

  • recognizable image, estimated to sell for as much

  • as about $400,000 US.

  • The auction report shares that it's not

  • a multiple but a unique work made

  • in 2006 with Banksy's signature method of stenciled spray

  • paint but this time on canvas instead of on a wall

  • or as a print on paper.

  • It was authenticated by Pest Control, the handling

  • service that acts on the artist's behalf

  • and authenticates his work.

  • Sotheby's claims it was acquired directly from the artist

  • by the unnamed present owner the year

  • it was made following a show he organized of his work

  • in an LA warehouse, and it came in that gilded frame--

  • ah, the frame-- which Sotheby's states was,

  • quote, "chosen by Banksy himself."

  • Gold frames are one of the artist's favorite motifs.

  • In conjunction with that same LA warehouse show,

  • he released a print that clearly expresses

  • his dubiousness of the auction process

  • and even presented it in a ridiculous gold frame.

  • And for his 2009 exhibition at the Bristol museum,

  • Banksy mixed his works in with the museum's collection, many

  • of them in period appropriate frames, helping his art

  • blend in, at least sort of.

  • One of these was a gold frame laid over a concrete slab

  • with one stick figure asking, "Does anyone really take

  • this kind of art seriously?", and another replying,

  • "Never underestimate the power of a big gold frame."

  • A year later, this image appeared on a wall

  • in San Francisco clearly demonstrating

  • the uneasy situation Banksy has found himself

  • in as his profile has risen and more and more people try

  • to benefit of unauthorized sales and exhibitions of his work.

  • Now I find it unlikely that no one at Sotheby's knew

  • what was going to happen with this big gold frame

  • or that anyone inspecting it would find

  • nothing suspicious about it.

  • I also find it unconvincing that Banksy's video

  • showing his frame construction was made back in 2006

  • or that it's coincidental that it was

  • the last lot in the auction.

  • Banksy very well could have been the prior owner.

  • Sotheby's doesn't have to disclose that information.

  • Regardless, what happened indicates

  • very strongly that people really do take this kind of art

  • seriously.

  • They probably would have even if it

  • hadn't been in the gold frame, but they're certainly

  • taking it even more seriously now that the frame has

  • revealed itself to be an integral part of the work.

  • When he posted his video, Banksy included the quote by Picasso,

  • "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."

  • And Banksy certainly isn't the first artist

  • to incorporate destruction in art making.

  • Man Ray made his first indestructible object

  • in 1923, an altered metronome that the viewer

  • is instructed to smash when they've reached,

  • quote, "the limit of endurance."

  • Robert Rauschenberg is famous for his 1953 erased Willem de

  • Kooning drawing, and Nicki de Saint Phalle for her 1961

  • exhibition in which she asks visitors

  • to fire at her relief paintings with a .22 caliber rifle.

  • There are many ways a work of art comes into being, be it

  • an additive process, a subtractive process,

  • one that must unfold in space and time,

  • or one that's immaterial, not existing

  • until the moment it's performed and then disappearing

  • as soon as it's over.

  • "Girl with Balloon" was one artwork,

  • and now it's another that came into being

  • through a public action but which still very much has

  • a material presence because the object wasn't destroyed.

  • It's only half shredded.

  • And since it was canvas going through,

  • the remaining fringe is pretty stable.

  • I can totally see an art packer carefully

  • crafting a crate that will keep it safe

  • and sound until its next exhibition.

  • It really only got more interesting when shredded.

  • Editioned prints, or paintings of Banksy's images,

  • even if sanctioned by the artist, are all right,

  • but they certainly don't have the subversive power

  • or presence of his art made in and for the public arena.

  • His gilt frames had served the purpose

  • of emphasizing the artificiality of putting these images meant

  • for the public into private hands,

  • but now one of those frames has revealed

  • itself to be an agent of insurrection,

  • however incomplete its act of destruction.

  • And the art world loves being questioned and criticized.

  • It's weird.

  • It's almost like a kind of high-class nagging

  • which they've even given their own academic-sounding term.

  • Institutional critique is what they call the art that actively

  • critiques the structures it lives in

  • and that make it possible, like museums or galleries

  • or, in this case, an auction house.

  • It became a thing after institutions

  • started to collect more ephemeral and performative

  • works made by artists in the '60s and '70s

  • by artists strategically trying to avoid

  • the traditional spaces for art.

  • But no matter.

  • Museums were happy to matriculate

  • these invasive works and include them in their histories of art,

  • and in many cases people proved willing to buy them too.

  • And so it's not at all surprising

  • when something as straightforwardly material

  • as this work by Banksy can fetch such a high price at auction,

  • and it's not surprising either when

  • its collector is willing to accept it's transformed

  • and likely even more valuable state,

  • especially now that post action it

  • embodies some aspect of the subversion that

  • makes Banksy Banksy.

  • It can actually live more comfortably in an exhibition

  • now than it could before, hanging half

  • in and out of its frame, telling its own history of Banksy's

  • shenanigans.

  • But there's also another important element of this work

  • that we might be overlooking, and that's the publicity

  • and press that has swirled around it,

  • which I'd argue is as much a part of the work as what went

  • down at Sotheby's.

  • Banksy is brilliant at attracting attention

  • and generating controversy.

  • His anonymity is part of that and something I hope never

  • goes away.

  • With this work, he draws attention

  • to the auction process in general,

  • which is followed closely only by an extremely tiny community.

  • Most of us see headlines about multimillion dollar sales,

  • feel nauseous, and then move on.

  • The auction system in its current form

  • survives in part because most people aren't paying attention

  • to it.

  • It's a highly efficient way for the international uber-rich

  • to buy and trade valuable assets.

  • Sure, some are in the game for good reasons,

  • but Banksy's action has made us all more

  • aware of a few key facts.

  • People are willing to pay ungodly sums of money for art

  • these days.

  • With rare exceptions, none of that money goes to the artists.

  • These are secondary sales, meaning

  • one owner is selling to another.

  • Most artists are completely powerless when

  • their work goes to auction.

  • To take back some of that power, you might have to get

  • your hands a little dirty, like when Damien Hirst orchestrated

  • his own direct-to-auction sale in 2008 and like this recent

  • stunt by Banksy, which may or may not have been executed with

  • the cooperation of Sotheby's.

  • Whether or not we assume what Banksy says is true--

  • which we really shouldn't--

  • "Love is in the Bin" still reminds us

  • of the convoluted power structures

  • that vie for what art and which artists

  • get anointed as important and valuable.

  • We like Banksy's work because it helps us see the gross power

  • imbalances all around us, even if they're

  • imperfect and temporary and corruptible by outside forces,

  • or perhaps we love them more because of those things.

  • Banksy may seem like less of the pure countercultural rebel he

  • once was, but I, for one, appreciate

  • these recent attempts at effecting change, however

  • small, from the inside, or at least with one foot in and one

  • foot out, able to capture money from sales

  • that will happen with or without his blessing,

  • and perhaps apply those proceeds to new work in the future.

  • I, for one, will be looking out for some very public

  • $1.3 million expenditures from Banksy

  • in the not-too-distant future.

  • I'll leave it to him to surprise me.

  • Do you want to know more about money so you can maybe

  • buy a Banksy one day?

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  • and Julia Lorenz-Olson guide you through the complex world

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  • into how your brain is hardwired to react to economic problems.

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